Nora Rose Mueller

Discovering Chamizal, The International “National Park”

Down in the West-Texas town of El Paso, Chamizal National Memorial is bridging the divide between the United States and Mexico through the lens of nature. The park stretches across both Mexico and the U.S., separated by the international border running between them. Named for the four-wing saltbrush (chamiza in Spanish) that grows readily in the area, the Chamizal National Memorial is part the Chihuahua Desert– because of the park’s location in an inland corridor, however, the land enjoys more moisture than other parts of the desert and boasts a greater diversity of flora.

Standing in the southern fields of the park, the entrance to Mexico can easily be seen from the American side– just West of Chamizal, a great, elevated highway connects the two countries, crossing over the border fence and Rio Grande, its natural riverbed now replaced with a concrete channel. The edge of the American park ends just before the border, looking out onto the highway and fence beyond it. In each side’s portion of the park, both countries’ flags fly, in symbolic gesture to the peaceful culmination of a century’s-worth of conflict.

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Ye Olde Map ChamizalNora Rose Mueller

In 1848, the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed into law, concluding the Mexican-American war and laying the groundwork for the next hundred years of disagreement. The terms of the treaty, which was intending to bring peace to the two nations, much of what is now considered the West was allocated to the United States, while the Rio Grande was declared the official international border between America and Mexico.

Over the course of the following two decades, the river shifted slightly with each season. In 1864, however, a period of massive flooding radically altered the border and redistributed a significant amount of Mexican lands to America. The two countries agreed to revisit the terms of their original treaty, eventually resolving in 1884 to situate the border in the center of the river’s deepest channel. Both parties pledged to honor the marker, regardless of the river’s future movements. Today the marker resides clearly in the American park, a few dozen feet from the visitors’ center. The river itself is now a few hundred feet from there.


A little over ten years later, in 1895, Mexico made a claim on behalf of Pedro Garcia–a Mexican citizen whose land had fallen under the jurisdiction of the United States after the border was officially moved in 1884. The area was known as the Chamizal Tract, and despite lingering confusion over whose authority it belonged under, Americans had begun settling the land for themselves. The claim remained unresolved, and Garcia died in 1911– the same year a commission was assembled to address the issue.

In subsequent years, the area around Chamizal was plagued by persistent flooding. By 1899, both countries agreed to redirect the river along a straighter line. This, however, had the unintentional effect of creating Cordova Island, an irregularly-shaped lot of Mexican farmland, surrounded on three sides by the United States and by the Rio Grande on its fourth. Cordova Island lay directly to the west of the Chamizal Tract, with the Rio Grande running between them.

Tasked with resolving the Chamizal dispute (referring to both Cordova Island and the Chamizal tract), a commission was formed in downtown El Paso in 1911. The arbitration failed after a few months, however, when the United States rejected the decision handed down. The topic subsequently became a stalemate, as Mexico became embroiled in the throes of its revolution.

Chamizal MuralNora Rose Mueller

During the 1920s and the early 1930s, Prohibition prevailed in the United States. As a result, Cordova Island–conveniently under the jurisdiction of the Mexican government, and easily accessible to delinquent Americans–became a national refuge for drinking and smuggling. When Prohibition ended, the site retained its seedy character, evolving into an established channel for drug traffic and illegal immigration. Conditions eventually deteriorated to such a point that a four mile fence was erected in 1940, limiting movement between the countries and reducing the violence that had plagued the area.

Over the next twenty years, the area remained contested but was never addressed specifically. It was not until the height of the Cold War, when President John F. Kennedy sought to secure America’s relationship with Mexico, did the issue once again come to the fore. Kennedy traveled to Mexico City to meet with the president at the time, López Mateos. The two men agreed to settle the dispute once and for all, and drew up a series of agreements known as the Chamizal Convention of 1963.

ChamizalNora Rose Mueller

In accordance with the Chamizal Convention of 1963, the Chamizal tract would be returned to Mexico while the Rio Grande’s path (and with it the international border) would be cemented in concrete, with its new course running through the middle of Cordova Island. The 200 acres Mexico lost to the new, adjusted border was balanced by 200 acres that the United States gave to Mexico downriver. The Chamizal Convention also required that the disputed Chamizal tract become a “peace park” on each side: what is now known as the Chamizal National Memorial on the U.S. side and the Parque Público Federal “El Chamizal” on the Mexican side.

Kennedy, however, never saw the opening of the park. A few months after signing the Chamizal Convention in August 1963, he was assassinated in Dallas. The following year, President Lyndon B. Johnson and President Mateos marked the official resolution of the hundred-year long Chamizal dispute by meeting in the middle of the international bridge and shaking hands in front of more than 250,000 people–the largest crowd the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez area has ever drawn.

ChamizalNora Rose Mueller

Today, the Chamizal Memorial is open to the public almost every day, with a museum and gallery visitors can also experience. Throughout the year, a large indoor theatre hosts recitals and plays, including the Siglo de Oro Festival, an international celebration of classic Spanish plays, and performances of Ballet Folklorico, a type of traditional Mexican folk dance. During the summer, their outdoor stage presents Music Under the Stars, an extremely popular weekly concert series. Like Chamizal itself, the events seek to honor the area’s heritage and diversity. Different cultures and identities are each given a voice and a platform at Chamizal, which has a poetic symmetry: English and Spanish are printed next to one another in the park brochures, just as the museums exist in each park, mirrored on either side of the border. Yet the two countries do not remain separate. More than anything, Chamizal represents a harmony– a regional blending of cultures, typified in the mural that covers three walls of the visitors centers. The first panel honors the history and diversity of the United States, the second honors Mexico’s, and the third represents both nations existing side by side. At a time when ugly rhetoric is often not only accepted but celebrated in America, Chamizal reminds us of the strength in peace and diplomacy, a lasting testament to the power of unity, acceptance, respect, and the way in which our national parks honor these traditions.

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